Hundreds of families separated by 1,000 miles are connected each Christmas by an act of generosity spanning two decades.
A link between central and northern Minnesota with the mountains of Kentucky may not seem an obvious one. Kentucky native Father Terence Hoppenjans, whose mother hails from Minnesota, went to the seminary in St. Paul. The effort to reach out to areas hard hit by poverty began in 1972 and when Hoppenjans moved to a new parish in Paintsville, Kentucky -- the archdiocese and Council of Catholic Women there take on more families.
Those families included people who came to the church in need of assistance with medical bills, who had or were in danger of having utilities disconnected, or were in need of gasoline to drive to medical appointments.
Hoppenjans reached out to Minnesota for assistance. The Appalachian Christmas Project was the topic Denise Haaland, a guest speaker at the Duluth Council of Catholic Women fall convention, spoke of in 1998. Haaland was a representative of the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocese Council of Catholic Women. The Duluth Council of Catholic Women agreed to take up the cause. The first year, they were given 75 families to help at Christmas.
At Christmas, the outreach program means getting a ham for dinner and toys for the children, along with something for the adults in the home.
“We couldn’t do any of this outreach program without the whole church, without the Body of Christ working together, we would be lost,” Hoppenjans said.
Cathy and Bob Olson spearheaded the program and worked to expand it to include the entire Duluth Diocese, of which Brainerd is a part.
“Twenty years ago we adopted this project,” Cathy Olson said as boxes were being loaded into the truck this season. “We voted for it and they all said ‘Yes’ and we’ve done it for 20 years and everybody is very cooperative.”
Now 300 to 400 families receive presents at Christmas. Not unlike taking tags from a Christmas tree and returning with wrapped presents, the CCW members receive basic information about a family, including ages and genders of children, and then purchase items for them. The rules are simple. New, durable toys for children up to age 13, and an appropriate gift for older children. A gift for the adults that will brighten the day. And all must be given anonymously, no more than two boxes per family.
For most of the program’s life, the boxes were dropped off at the Olson’s north Brainerd home by Nov. 1. School children at St. Francis of the Lakes Catholic School walked over to the Olson’s home and helped load packages into a semitrailer. Their counterparts, the school children at Hoppenjans’ parish of St. Michael’s in Paintsville, unload those boxes.
After Olson moved, the packages were dropped off at Therese Potter’s Baxter home and the students, even if they could no longer walk there, are still involved in loading the truck.
“It’s a very, very good project,” Olson said. “And the women are very, very nice, cooperative, just love doing it, know that they are going to make some children happy for Christmas and I’m so thankful that we are still doing it and I’m still here.”
Hoppenjans, who was out delivering packages to those very families last week, said he’s been working closely with Cathy Olson, a member of St. Francis Catholic Church, since the program began here.
A transport company in St. Paul volunteers the truck and driver for the delivery to Kentucky.
In a recent phone interview, Hoppenjans said the area of Kentucky is poor with a high unemployment rate. People live on Supplemental Security Income or other government grants from the federal government providing money for basic needs to help aged, blind and the disabled who have little or no income. Hoppenjans said many times that assistance will not cover all their bills, let alone leave funds for Christmas.
“I was always concerned about the children,” Hoppenjans said of his efforts then to gather toys and work for the Appalachian Christmas Project. Part of the process goes into verifying the families — 300 to 375 of them — are truly in need. Once that happens, a list is made and is sent to women of the Duluth Diocese. Once in Kentucky, the packages are divided into routes and volunteers, including Hoppenjans’ nieces, nephews and friends, who come every year to deliver the boxes of presents, along with a ham and candy. They travel into the mountains made famous by one of the women who was raised in Butcher Hollow near Paintsville — country music singer and songwriter Loretta Lynn and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Toys are donated from a toy company and from a parish in Cincinnati. So many came in that dolls, games and toys were available for an additional 130 families. And families received a ham, blanket and candy. Johnson County, where Paintsville is the county seat, has a population of about 23,000. Hoppenjans said the area has a high degree of poverty and low income, even by government standards. It has no major industry and the collapse of the coal industry, he said, has a ripple effect on the rest of the economy with fast-food restaurants closing and less money going to other businesses. Hoppenjans noted a promotion aired locally with a teacher asking students what’s the most important thing in the mountains. The students yell out “coal.” The teacher says, “No, it’s you.”
With the poverty of the area, Hoppenjans said those families would not be able to provide for their children.
“They are so thankful,” he said, noting he’s heard from people who are asking for assistance for the first time after a breadwinner has lost a job. “In the United States, the economy is improving, but in our area it is really suffering,” he said.
Young people are leaving, the unemployed and unemployable try to live on what assistance they get. Families are stretched. Drugs are a major problem.
“The reason for that is they lack a lot of hope,” Hoppenjans said. Even when the mines were open, Hoppenjans noted drugs were an issue. Hoppenjans has been in the area for 60 years.
He described the people who call the area home as being kind, generous and people of their word, and willing to help each other whenever possible.
He said there are significant areas that have improved in the state — health care, education and roads. There is a great effort, Hoppenjans said, to revitalize the economy, looking at tourism and the natural beauty of the region and at growing good-paying jobs in small industries. But all that takes time to develop.
“We’ll keep praying and working and trying to recruit industry,” he said.
For Hoppenjans, the outreach from Minnesota is a living example that the work of recognizing Christ in others and reaching out to those in need is that of the of the whole church, not just the 75 families that make up St. Michael’s. The delivery of the boxes of gifts is done simply and with the wish for a blessed Christmas as the families celebrate Christ’s birth, Hoppenjans said, noting the Appalachian Christmas Project follows Christ’s words in Matthew’s Gospel that whatever is done for the least of the brethren is done for Christ himself.
He knows some people can be cynical when it comes to helping the poor, or of systemic poverty, but he also sees the enthusiasm of those who return year after year to deliver the packages to the people in the mountains.
Hoppenjans said: “They experience that same joy — of being able to give.”